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Despite international opposition, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today ordered the sixth-century Hagia Sophia museum to return to its former status as a mosque, something it hasn't been in nearly a century. Erdogan says it will be open to all free of charge. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: That's the sound of the Muslim call to this afternoon's prayer emanating, as it has in recent years, from the minarets around the Hagia Sophia. It was originally built as a magnificent Byzantine church, with a massive dome and brilliant Christian mosaics. Ottoman Turks added the minarets following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Now today's shift is the latest twist in a saga that's stretched for nearly 1,500 years. Erdogan signed the presidential decree hours after a Turkish court released its ruling that a 1934 decision by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk converting the then-mosque into a museum was illegal.
Standing outside the Hagia Sophia just hours before Erdogan signed his decree, a young woman from Russia who only wanted to give her first name - Elena - said after her, quote, "breathtaking visit" she hoped the change wouldn't happen.
ELENA: Well, even being Muslim myself, I think it still has to stay as a museum.
KENYON: She said in this time of polarization, she didn't want to see another decision that could drive people apart. Standing nearby, a young history student named Kaan Korkan had a more practical worry.
KAAN KORKAN: (Non-English language spoken).
KENYON: Apart from whether it's a museum a church or a mosque, he said, we need to consider that this is a very old building barely standing. They need to help it withstand large crowds. Elizabeth Prodromou directs the Religion and Diplomacy program at Tufts University's Fletcher School. She calls this decision a tragedy motivated by what she calls Erdogan's need to play to his conservative base and change the subject from his party's recent electoral defeats and a slumping economy.
ELIZABETH PRODROMOU: So this is part and parcel of neo-Ottoman foreign policy melded with his base, which is a nationalist, Islamist base.
KENYON: Both Greece and Russia condemned the move. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had urged Turkey to reconsider. The U.N.'s culture agency UNESCO confirms that in light of the change, it will review Hagia Sophia's status as a World Heritage Site. Erdogan promises to keep the Hagia Sophia open to all. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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